Galveston in the Civil War

In 1860, Galveston served as a thriving island port and major commercial hub on the Texas gulf coast. With a population of roughly 7,200, it was the largest city in Texas and was responsible for three-quarters of the state's seaborne cotton exports. Trade had enriched the leaders of Galveston, and they, in turn, had introduced a variety of amenities to their island home, including paved streets, gas service, and a railroad bridge to the mainland.

Despite the prosperity that Galveston enjoyed, city residents voted 765-to-33 in favor of secession from the United States in February 1861. Much of this support was due to the belief, common at the time, that the newly-elected U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, posed a vital threat to the continuation of racial slavery in Texas. Although this belief was erroneous, Texas seceded from the Union on March 2, 1861, and soon joined forces with the ten other members of the Confederate States of America.

Shortly after Texas seceded, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Blockade against southern ports on April 19, 1861. At that time, Galveston was unprepared for any attack by sea, since the Texas coast lacked any brick fortifications and housed only a few heavy cannon. The Confederate forces in the city were fortunate, however, in that the U.S. fleet had only 42 warships to blockade the entire southern coast.

In July 1861, the USS South Carolina, an armed Union steamship under the command of James Alden, appeared at Galveston in an attempt to enforce the Union blockade. Shipping continued almost as before, however, as blockade runners transported cotton to Havana and other ports, and then returned with military supplies and consumer goods.

Outraged by this illicit trade, Captain Henry Eagle, commander of the USS Santee, demanded the surrender of Galveston on May 17, 1862. As a result, Brigadier General Paul O. Hébert, the Confederate military commander for the district of Texas, ordered the evacuation of civilians, livestock, supplies, and cannon, realizing that the defenses were not prepared to repel a sustained attack. Eagle was unable to carry through on his threat, however, since his crew was sick with scurvy.

After a few months of tense relations, federal forces finally launched an assault on the city on October 4, 1862. At that time, William B. Renshaw, commander of the Union gunboat Harriet Lane, entered Galveston Harbor with surrender orders. When the surrender did not come quickly enough, Renshaw brought in his other ships and opened fire, quickly disabling the Confederate artillery, which consisted of only one operational gun. A four-day truce was agreed upon, allowing evacuation of the remaining civilians, after which the city surrendered. Galveston was occupied, its harbor was patrolled by six Union ships, and its waterfront was occupied by 260 Massachusetts infantrymen.

On New Year’s Day 1863, two Confederate “cotton-clads” (river steamers with bales of cotton placed aboard to protect gunners and sharpshooters) attacked the Union ships in the harbor. Confederate artillery, which had been moved into position during the dark of night, opened fired on the Federal gunboats. In a coordinated attack, Generals John B. MacGruder and William B. Scurry led troops across an abandoned railroad bridge to capture the Union garrison. Union attempts to recapture Galveston were then thwarted by defenders who exaggerated the strength of their fortifications with wooden "Quaker guns," while real cannon were returned to the city.

By the end of the Civil War, Galveston had been blockaded, besieged, captured, occupied, recaptured, and defended. When the Confederacy was finally defeated, surrender terms were formally signed on June 2, 1865 by General Edmund Kirby aboard the USS Fort Jackson in Galveston Harbor. On June 18, Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston with 2,000 Federal troops to occupy Texas. On the following day, he officially announced that the war was over and that the enslaved African American population in Texas was free. Locally and nationally, this event became known as Juneteenth.